In latest production at MU theatre department, students run the show

The Mizzou New Play Series runs from Feb. 7-11 and features 24 original works developed through the MU theatre department’s Writing for Performance program.

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Student-directed, written and performed, the Mizzou New Play Series is a concert staging of 24 original plays. It will run from Feb. 7-11 at the new Studio 4 performance space in McKee Gymnasium.

“There’s a fine art to directing a concert reading,” the show’s creative director Dr. David Crespy said. “It involves learning how little you can block to get across a very evocative moment.”

Concert staging is a type of performance that relies on minimal blocking, set and costumes, Crespy said. The actors read off scripts at music stands. All stage directions are read by another student to set the scene.

“You’re giving a lot of suggestions of what could possibly happen, and the audience is also working from their imagination,” Crespy said.

The unique staging and rehearsal process of the Mizzou New Play Series is known to draw in people who are new to theatre.

“For a lot of students, the Mizzou New Play Series is the first time that they’ve done anything in their lives in terms of acting or directing or playwriting,” Crespy said.

According to Crespy, the New Play Series auditions are open to anyone. Although the bulk of the participants are MU students, MU faculty and members of the community are welcome as well.

Among this year’s new recruits is MU freshman Marian Bouchot, who acts in four short plays in the series.

After finding an ad for auditions on Facebook, Bouchot said she was drawn to this production because it seemed to fit with her schedule.

“There’s not actually that much rehearsal time,” Bouchot said. “We rehearse each play at least twice. It’s definitely really low commitment, and it wasn’t something super stressful or overwhelming.”

Bouchot said she had wanted to get involved in theatre in high school, which led her to explore filmmaking and directing. Although her theatrical career began behind the camera, Bouchot enjoys stepping out of her comfort zone and into the limelight.

“It’s odd being on the other side, but it’s a huge learning experience to just humble myself and let them help me improve my character,” Bouchot said. “I’m still getting comfortable in it, but it definitely teaches me how to be a better director.”

Because of the minimal time commitment, actors in the New Play Series can participate in multiple shows and take on other creative roles in the process of staging a show.

“Everyone here is here to learn, and they’re in roles they might not have had before, such as directing,” Bouchot explained.

Part of the goal of the New Play Series is to get students to try new parts of theatre they may be unfamiliar with.

“In one piece you may be an actor, in one piece you may be a director, in another piece you may be the playwright,” Crespy said. “People are taking on multiple roles.”

Although the rehearsal period is brief, the New Play Series is a long process. Writers submitted their plays online and students applied for directing positions in early fall, according to Crespy. The directors are hired in November. They read through the submissions, select which plays they want to direct and hold auditions for actors.

“Putting playwrights and directors together is a little bit like a marriage,” Crespy said. “It’s teaching people how to work together in this highly collaborative art form.”

Crespy has had plenty of experience in working with actors, directors and playwrights. Crespy created the Mizzou New Play Series in 1999 after arriving at MU in 1998.

The Mizzou New Play Series is a part of the MU theatre department’s Writing for Performance program at MU. It’s a series of classes, projects and workshops of new plays or other works such as screenplays and teleplays. It includes the Missouri Playwrights Workshop, the Mizzou New Play Series, the summer Comedies in Concert series and the Life and Literature Performance Series. The focus of the program is dramaturgy, or the art of developing new works for stage.

“We give the students an enormous opportunity to write and hear their works read,” Crespy said.

Once writers can hear and see their shows, they can receive feedback. This feedback can come from the actors and directors, though the audience also plays a key role in this process.

“After the play is performed, we have a talk-back session where the audience members are invited to hang out and talk about the plays,” Crespy said. “Quite often, that’s the most interesting part.”

The talk-back session is meant for the playwright to ask questions of the audience that will help them edit and improve their script. According to Crespy, the interactive session is meant to gauge what parts of the show were engaging and what parts could use work.

“The editorial process, or the play-development process, is happening all along the way,” Crespy said. “The whole point is for the playwrights to be able to change their scripts.”

Plays in the Mizzou New Play Series can be entered into the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, which helps them gain recognition and gives them more opportunities to hear their script.

This January, eight original plays from MU were recognized with various awards and honors at the Region 5 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

Ninety-five plays from MU writers have been recognized regionally and 21 have been recognized nationally at the Kennedy Center since the beginning of the New Play Series in 1999, according to Crespy.

The New Play Series also offers the opportunity for short plays to become main stage productions. The Green Duck Lounge, a play written by MU alumna Michelle Tyrene Johnson, was featured in the Mizzou New Play Series in 2017. Now, it’s in rehearsals for a main stage production at MU set to open in February.

“It’s a really big playwriting, dramatic writing machine,” Crespy said.

The New Play Series has also begun to spread beyond MU. Because the series is open to anyone, Crespy said some playwrights have come from different cities to produce their work in this showcase, such as Lewis Shilane of Joplin and David Hawley of St. Louis.

“It’s part of larger project we see, where MU theatre serves not just our students, faculty and staff, but the people of Missouri and those who have an interest and ambition in writing for the stage,” Crespy said. “We are here for them.”

Edited by Brooke Collier | bcollier@themaneater.com

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